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Strides In Fundraising For Land Deal



By LORETTA WALDMAN
Courant Staff Writer

February 1 2007

SIMSBURY -- Two conservation groups say they have raised more than half of the $2.75 million they pledged toward the purchase price for 424 acres of open space owned by and adjacent to Ethel Walker School.

Roughly $60,000 of the $1.5 million raised was generated at a fundraiser held Saturday at Tower Ridge Country Club, at which both groups - the Trust for Public Land and Keep the Woods - were recognized for their efforts.

The groups' fundraising is a key part of a $13.9 million plan approved by voters in November to purchase the development rights of the Ethel Walker woodland. Officials at the private girls college preparatory school were contemplating a 122-house subdivision to enhance the school's endowment.

"We have been honored to be part of preserving such a regionally significant property," Melissa Spear, project manager at the trust, said in a statement issued after Saturday's event, which was sponsored by Aquarion Water Company and SKY Investment Group LLC. "Many people and organizations have worked for decades to protect this priceless open space network in the Farmington Valley, and many people have worked very hard for the last year and a half to get to this point with the preservation of the Ethel Walker Woods. We are getting close to the wire, but with everyone's support I feel confident we can reach our fundraising goal."

The fate of the land has been an issue in town for years. Voters approved spending up to $7 million - $5 million from bonding and $2 million from the town's reserve - to purchase 330 acres of the 420-acre preserve.

The town has already received $900,000 from the state, for a total of $10.65 million when combined with the pledged $2.75 million. Officials have until 2012 to decide if and how they want to pay for the rest of the property.

Spears was optimistic that the remaining $1.25 million promised by the two conservation groups could be raised by next month, the deadline they set to reach their fundraising goal. At that point, the town also would set aside a $1 million deposit, securing an easement on the remaining property and locking in a price of $3.1 million for the remaining acreage.

In April 2012, the town would have to choose one of several options for completing the deal or lose the $1 million deposit. The land includes forests, open fields, trails and wetlands and sits atop the Stratton Brook aquifer, a source of 73 percent of the town's drinking water. Preservation of the property would protect the public water supply, retain a major scenic vista in town and guarantee permanent public access to the land and its extensive trail system, advocates say.

Contact Loretta Waldman at lwaldman@courant.com.

Copyright 2007, Hartford Courant